Settlers of Catan: Negotiation, Dice, and Problems with a Classic

Settlers of Catan: Negotiation, Dice, and Problems with a Classic

For many, Settlers of Catan is the first modern-style board game that they play.  As a gateway to the hobby, it’s done a world of good rehabilitating folks who think board games began and ended with the Milton Bradley and Parker Bros classics that most households and child-care facilities probably had a copy of somewhere but don’t hold up to anything resembling standards.

The basic gameplay of Settlers is centered around the five resources: wood, clay, sheep, wheat, and stone. Players trade in specific sets of these cards to build roads, build towns, upgrade towns to cities, and buy special cards that can earn them extra victory points. Towns are one point, cities two points, and victory is achieved at ten points.

Catan
This layout is White’s to lose, and White will lose it if no one rolls a six.

The acquisition of the resources is the main problem with the game (from our point of view). Firstly, the layout of the board is random. There are a specific number of tiles of each resource, but their relation to each other is randomized and it matters a great deal what tiles are adjacent to each other; towns are placed at vertices (adjacent to three tiles, since Settlers uses hexagonal tiles) and give resources based on all tiles at that vertex. Second, each tile has a number from 2 to 12 assigned to it, and these numbers are assigned at random. Tiles only give resources when a player rolls that number (though it doesn’t matter who rolled the number, only that the number was rolled) so if a board has one stone tile with 2 and the other 11, it’s going to be very hard to acquire stone that game. Because of these three levels of randomness, it’s difficult to maintain any given strategy; it doesn’t matter how good your plan is if the dice never give you the resources you need.  You can reduce some of the randomness in setup by using one of the “standard” deals from the rulebook, but doing that also removes a level of tactical decision-making, so it really ends up being a wash for the game.

Now, don’t get us wrong — randomness in games can be a good thing.  Cards, dice, and other mechanisms for creating outcomes over which the player doesn’t have 100% control add spice to a lot of titles.  However, there is an issue with too much random and the wrong kind of random.  Good randomness is typically iterative and represents a forking decision point — you have three paths in front of you, but Monty Hall barricades one of them with the dice leaving you to pick between the remaining two.  The randomness in Catan is more sequential, and rather than pushing what directions you can go all too often functions as a red light/green light for going anywhere at all.

Which brings us to the probably most polarizing aspect of Settlers of Catan: the negotiation.  Settlers of Catan is a game in which you are largely free to trade your resources with other players, and will have to do so to succeed.  Few indeed are the burgeoning empires with all the income they’ll require to hit 10 points.  However, this runs into a massive roadblock with one fairly simple fact of life in Catan: in the end, there can only be one winner.  This results in an endgame featuring a common problem we’ll call the Whack-a-Mole Effect.  Essentially, the Whack-a-Mole effect occurs when the set of all other players seeks to harm, hamper, or refuse to cooperate with a “winning” player because, quite simply, said player winning would make them lose.  It truly becomes Whack-a-Mole when multiple victory threats are established, and table politics break down into a sequence of attempting to spite whoever is up right now (like trying to hit whatever mole has reared its head in a game of Whack-a-Mole).  The Whack-a-Mole effect can be seen in any competitive game with negotiation or direct player interaction, and so is often a component of good games, but certain games provoke it more and in more detrimental forms than others.

Now, because the worst things you can typically do to your fellow players in a game of Settlers of Catan are establishing trade embargos and placing the Robber, it’s not the worst example of the Whack-a-Mole effect in gaming.  Games like Munchkin and Cosmic Encounter, where the active player’s position can actually be damaged by the behavior of non-active players, lay it on a little heavier.  However, Catan, while not nearly as much the subject of our ire as either of those other games, shares one problematic trait with them: thanks to the Whack-a-Mole Effect, the “Endgame” takes far more real time and engenders more hostility than it probably should.

Part of it is that, in our experience, the whack-a-mole style vendettas start earlier in Catan.  A few good rolls, or a setup that extends your road network quickly, and suddenly you are public enemy #1, at least until something goes well for the next mole in question.  Threat reassessment can be a fairly arbitrary occurrence so if you happen to be the mole to be whacked due to an ephemeral roll of the dice, the loss of the ability to trade will often linger and outweigh the boon you received.

And really, with the setup of Settlers of Catan, there wasn’t all that much the designers could do to mitigate this.  Games can avoid excessive Whack-a-Mole, even in an outright combat-positive game, by including mechanics that players behind can use to rubber band (lowering variance and making most players feel like they’re still ‘in it’ with their own strategy), by obfuscating proximity to victory or strength of board position at least somewhat (which Catan attempts with the VP-granting Development cards, though they’re rarely sufficient given, as mentioned, that Catan enters the “Whack-a-Mole” phase somewhat early), by providing players with a degree of self-sufficiency so a player who has pulled significantly far ahead can actually end the mostly ‘decided’ game barring a major upset (very hard to get in Catan, thanks to the randomness as well as the setup), by having a main or alternative endgame condition that is inevitable within reasonable game time (so you can’t just keep whacking moles forever), or by any number of other mechanisms or combinations of mechanisms.

Catan, however, wears proudly the consequences of its nature as a Negotiation-heavy game.  It’s possible that for some groups, this could even be a positive feature, those less inclined to look solely for their path to victory and more interested in wheeling, dealing, and taking whatever route profitable trades opens to them could have a better time with it, but I feel like those same people would want to have more assurances of their investments paying off than Catan’s 2d6 resource generation permits.  But for us?  The negotiation aspect tends to fall flat because it’s too core to the game without actually being implemented in an interesting, core fashion.

Yet after all this, is Settlers of Catan a bad game?  Well, no.  Not really.  As a gateway game, it serves its purpose.  It’s easily understood and even potentially won by people who aren’t used to modern board games.  It’s simple, without being problematically simple or simplistic, and it can provide a satisfying experience as you spread your towns and grow them up to cities across the board.  It just has some faults we find with it that mean that while we will play Settlers of Catan if it’s requested, we won’t generally be eager to bring it to the table ourselves anymore.

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Betrayal at House on the Hill: You Never Know What’s Around the Corner

Betrayal at House on the Hill: You Never Know What’s Around the Corner

Let’s lead with this: This game is Steffanie’s absolute favorite (so this is going to be even less objective than normal). The game design is good, it’s paced well, it’s neither too long nor too short, the setting is engaging despite being cliché, and they built in an element to maximize its replay value.

Betrayal

Betrayal takes place at a haunted house that you, as the players, are investigating. There are six character movers with six associated character statistic tiles, but the tiles are two-sided with different statistics on each side, essentially giving you twelve instead. The game has a minimum player count of three for reasons that will be explained in a bit. In the first half of the game, you explore the mansion. Moving through the doors causes you to draw a tile at random (or at least semi-random, some tiles have to be on specific floors) to represent that room. Sometimes you draw cards and/or have to make a skill check. The dice for the game are odd—they only have numbers from 0 to 2, meaning each die has an average of 1 instead of 3.5 like a normal six-sided die. Of course, higher numbers aren’t always better.

The game has three decks: Event, Item, and most importantly, Omen. There are exactly 13 Omen cards, and each time one is drawn, the player who drew it has to roll six dice. If the total is less than the number of Omen cards drawn, which on average happens at the seventh Omen, then the second half of the game begins—and that’s where it really picks up.

Betrayal is a cooperative game, and as the title suggests it’s a traitor co-op, but it has a unique twist on the mechanic—the traitor is not determined at the start of the game the way it is in most traitor co-ops. The game comes with fifty scenarios for the second half of the game. Which scenario you get depends on what Omen triggered it in what room, and the traitor’s identity is entirely determined by the scenario. Often it’s the triggering player, but it can be the player to their left, the one with the highest in a statistic, the one with a lowest in a statistic…you get the idea.

It’s impossible to describe the second half of the game because it plays out differently based on the scenario, but there are some similarities. It starts with the traitor player leaving the room and reading the information about the scenario from one booklet, while the rest of the players read from a different booklet. It’s entirely possible for each side to not know the victory condition for the other side, or at least not how they accomplish that condition. After the non-traitor players agree on their strategy, the traitor is called back and turns begin again. The traitor player will often be trying to kill the other players, directly or indirectly, or will at least win if the other players die even if that isn’t their primary goal, but usually they have a different way to win and/or monsters to help them combat the other players. The non-traitor players usually have to make specific skill checks in specific rooms that may not even have been played at the time the second half begins, so the exploration of the house still continues, just with a frantic edge as they try to stay at least one step ahead of the traitor.

It’s the scenario aspect that really makes this game unique and keeps it fresh. It’ll take quite a lot of games before you start getting repeats of the same scenario, and unless you’re playing those games close together you may well have forgotten how to win a given scenario. Betrayal at House on the Hill may be “just” a haunted house, but it’s a haunted house you won’t soon forget.

(The creepy, old-timey radio in the corner crackles to life.  A strange, deep voice echoes from it.  These must be Austin’s Subversive Comments!)

Betrayal at House on the Hill may be Steff’s favorite game of our collection, but I’ll let you in on a little secret: It’s a better experience than it is a game.

The mechanics of Betrayal are a mixed bag.  They do what they set out to do, but sometimes they don’t run the way you would want a game to run.  Because of how damage and checks work, there are some haunts that, once revealed, it can be literally impossible for one side or the other to win.  I don’t just mean that they have a massive skew, I mean that even doing the math, with perfect dice rolls, this particular “deal” was unwinnable.  That’s not something you typically want to see out of a game!  Yet there’s a reason this doesn’t matter: because at the end of the day, Betrayal at House on the Hill isn’t supposed to be a crunchy, mechanical game where the decision of what to do on your turn is always important and impactful.  It’s supposed to be a Horror Movie Simulator, and to the experience of simulating a horror movie, game balance is a far distant secondary concern.

The most important part of enjoying a game of Betrayal at House on the Hill is to read the cards and, in the end, the entries from the Traitor’s Tome and Secrets of Survival out loud.  Have the most theatrical person who would logically deliver such lines do the reading. Let them ham it up, deliver the story slowly.  If you look at a card, put it down silently, and say “Okay, give me two dice”, roll them, and announce that nothing happens or “I take some damage” you probably won’t enjoy yourself the way you will if you (and those around you) actually narrate the text you’re given.

And, when played that way, Betrayal at House on the Hill is an excellent experience.  It does exactly what it sets out to do, and simulates that horror movie with suspense building as our heroes explore the seemingly haunted house, only to be shocked by the sudden twist reveal of probable betrayal and possible death.  It doesn’t matter if the heroes literally can’t survive the toxic, caustic atmosphere of the Alien World the house has been teleported to long enough to send themselves back to their own dimension. It’s a horror story; they can struggle and ultimately fail and die at the hands of the villain.  Similarly, if a high-school sweetheart decked out in magic armor with a holy spear can carve through demons and destroy their master like a hot knife cleaving butter, that’s OK too.  The heroes win, the story is the important part more than the outcome.

As such, while this is Steff’s favorite game and Austin still enjoys it, it might not be a game for every group or every game night.  It is not a replacement for a meaty co-op or a many-versus-one dungeon crawler.  It’s really it’s own thing, and you should know better than us who would enjoy it, and who might not.

Forbidden Island: Escape Together or Drown Alone

Forbidden Island: Escape Together or Drown Alone

Forbidden Island

Forbidden Island is our first example of a kind of game that generally has people split: the cooperative game. In co-op games, the players are pitted against the rules of the board. There’s no winner; either everyone wins together or everyone loses.  Some people really enjoy the genre, others are quite against it, and more don’t really ‘get’ that it’s a thing that exists since cooperative games have only recently been growing in popularity. We both like this kind of game but Steffanie especially prefers being able to enjoy a gaming experience without the pressure of having to try to beat other players.

In Forbidden Island, the players are explorers who’ve landed on a mysterious island in search of fabled treasures. Your goal is to get those treasures and get off the island, but you have to be fast–the island is sinking out from under you!

Each game is slightly different, as the island is made up of tiles that are dealt out at random; the tiles are flipped between “normal” and “flooding,” and get removed completely if the ocean overwhelms them. There’s a deck of island cards with one card representing each of the tiles. At the start of the game, some island cards are flipped up and those tiles are flipped to “flooding.” If an island card is drawn for an already-flooded tile, then both the tile and the card are returned to the box, leaving you both with less space to move and with fewer cards in the island deck, making it more likely that later tiles will sink.

Each player gets a different role with a special ability, but aside from that, the turn sequence is fairly simple. A player gets three actions, which can be to move from one tile to an adjacent one, to flip their tile or an adjacent one from “flooding” back to “normal,” to hand one of their cards to a player on the same tile, or to turn in four cards at a color of temple to get that treasure.  The maximum hand size is five, which ends up being a large part of the difficulty; you can’t work on multiple sets at once, and it’s time-consuming to transfer cards between players in a game where time is your enemy.

After a player goes, it’s the game’s turn. The player is dealt two player cards. If you’re lucky, both of them are treasures or helpful cards. If you’re unlucky, one (or in rare and extra-unlucky cases, both) will be a Waters Rise card. When the Waters Rise, you increase the Waters Rise meter, causing there to be more cards played from the Island deck, and then reshuffles the Island discards and puts them back on top—if you haven’t fixed those tiles, you’re risking losing them now! Whether or not the waters rose, you then deal out a number of cards equal to the Waters Rise meter from the Island deck (between two and five, depending on your chosen difficulty and how many times it has increased), and either flip or remove those tiles, depending on whether or not they were already flooded.

It’s nearly impossible (and quickly becomes strictly impossible) to keep up with the rate of the island flooding. Fortunately, that’s not your actual goal. You win by collecting all four treasures, getting all players to Fool’s Landing (a helicopter pad), and playing Helicopter Lift to escape. You lose if any of these become impossible: if both temples of one color sink before you get that treasure, if any player drowns, or if Fool’s Landing sinks. You also lose if, as mentioned earlier, the Waters Rise meter reaches the top.

For some reason, possibly its small size, Forbidden Island’s card deck seems particularly spiteful. Like many co-op games, it can go from “under control” to “we’re all doomed” in a single turn, but Forbidden Island has a frustrating tendency to not just do that, but do it multiple times per game. Part of what contributes to this is the distribution of the Waters Rise cards; in genre-cornerstone Pandemic and many of its imitators, this kind of card, the one that accelerates the rate at which you lose, is divided more or less evenly in the deck — say, one somewhere in each quarter if there are four, and the deck is never reshuffled, but in Forbidden Island, it’s completely random and has a nasty tendency to come back in a deck that’s perilously thin because players are holding on to cards in later shuffles.

The game can get tense, especially in the late game, but at the same time, it’s a fun kind of tense, with the players madly scrambling about to get the cards to the right people and places to claim the treasures. It is very similar to Forbidden Desert, Pandemic, and several other games, but Forbidden Island is probably the shortest of the lot with some of the simplest rules, so if you think this style of game might be your cup of tea, this is a good one to start out with.